The World Today for July 22, 2022

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NEED TO KNOW

The Trains To Nowhere

LAOS

When Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt in May, as the BBC reported, the resulting loss in confidence in the government led a mob to occupy the presidential palace and mansion. Photos in National Public Radio captured Sri Lankans hanging out in sumptuous offices, partying in the president’s pool and even using his gym.

As the mob shared pictures of his residence, impoverished Sri Lankans living amid food and medicine shortages became furious, forcing Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and then resign when he realized it was game over.

The episode showed how quickly an economic crisis could transition into a full-scale political and social revolution. A decade ago, Sri Lanka was still emerging from a 26-year civil war and was hailed as an Asian success story. Now, given how Sri Lanka’s crisis occurred due to excessive Chinese lending, the Wall Street Journal wrote, analysts are wondering which other countries might be next to enter into periods of chaos and instability. Many are worried about Laos.

Credit rating agencies and World Bank analyses recently warned that Laos is flirting with default due to two factors, Voice of America reported. First, rising energy costs due to the Russo-Ukraine War, higher US interest rates and other post-pandemic disruptions have caused the local currency to plunge in value. Meanwhile, the country must continue to service massive debts on Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.

Part of China’s Belt and Road initiative to improve trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe, the projects include more than 600 miles of railways, hospitals, energy projects as well as collaboration in education, finance and other sectors explained China Daily, an English-language newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party.

Upheavals can result when such massive investment leads to bankruptcy and financial chaos, however, as Sri Lanka illustrates. Already, Laos’ passport office said it couldn’t cope with the massive uptick in Laotians seeking these documents in order to flee the country for work elsewhere, Malaysia’s the Star Online, reported. It’s no wonder, though, when the price of food and other necessities has jumped almost 25 percent.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh has admitted that corruption is the main driver of Laos’ situation: He told the National Assembly last month “that embezzlement by executives and staff, combined with poor management, are the main reasons for the chronic losses racked-up by 178 state enterprises,” the Diplomat reported.

At the same time, the International Federation of Human Rights lamented the lack of progress in tolerating free speech, political dissidence and other rights in Laos. But many Laotians have become disgruntled enough to air their opinions. That’s in one of the world’s poorest, most isolated countries where the population has been cowed for decades.

“People are losing their fear and not scared to be openly critical because the economic crisis is affecting their daily lives,” wrote an anonymous Laotian in a social media post quoted in Nikkei Asia. “Social media is the only avenue they can do so in Laos’ repressive political environment.”

Despite that sentiment, Bloomberg predicted that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party would weather the crisis, describing the party as a “secretive communist regime that’s had an ironclad grip on power since 1975,” two years after the US ended its secret bombing runs over the country in the Vietnam War. That said, Laotian officials, perhaps reaching for a safety valve, have scheduled minimum wage hikes to help ameliorate the cost-of-living crisis, noted Radio Free Asia. And there are rumblings of some high-level heads to be sacrificed, Bloomberg noted.

That move could be the first of many that the regime and its critics make.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Game Over

ITALY

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi officially resigned Thursday, plunging the European country into further uncertainty and triggering snap elections in the fall, Bloomberg reported.

Draghi’s decision followed the withdrawal of support by his coalition partners in a confidence vote Wednesday, leading to the collapse of the administration. The former European Central Bank chief, however, will remain in a caretaker role until the next election, essentially making him a lame-duck.

The recent crisis came a week after one coalition partner, the populist Five Star Movement, boycotted a confidence vote on an economic package designed to tackle Italy’s cost-of-living crisis, according to CNN.

Draghi had said that he would quit afterward but President Sergio Mattarella rejected his resignation.

On Wednesday, Draghi said that he no longer had widespread support. His other main coalition partners, the right-wing League and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, joined Five Star in abandoning Draghi.

The new elections are slated for Sept. 25.

Opinion polls show that the far-right Brothers of Italy – which was not part of the coalition – would win a snap election. Meanwhile, the Five Star Movement, whose influence has waned since the 2018 elections, is expected to lose seats.

The New King

SRI LANKA

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in Thursday as president, taking the reins of a country plagued with a deep economic crisis that has sparked massive social unrest, including demands for his resignation, France 24 reported.

Wickremesinghe took office a day after Sri Lankan lawmakers voted him in as the country’s president. The six-time prime minister became acting president last week after then-incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country amid violent demonstrations.

One of his first acts as the country’s new president was to order a crackdown on protesters, the Washington Post reported.

On Friday, Sri Lankan security forces raided a protest camp outside the presidential office, with at least 50 people injured. The raid is likely the harshest crackdown on the demonstrations since they began after Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, which has caused shortages in fuel, food and medicine.

Months of demonstrations have seen protesters storming the residences of both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa.

Once allied with the Rajapaksas – another brother who was prime minister resigned earlier this year – Wickremesinghe dissociated himself from the powerful political family after winning the parliamentary vote.

Still, many protesters believe that the new president will protect the Rajapaksas, whom they blame for the current economic meltdown. Following his appointment, demonstrators vowed to continue their protests until Wickremesinghe is gone, the Guardian wrote.

Official sources said the new president is expected to form a multi-party cabinet, a unity government, to steer the South Asian nation out of the crisis.

Whodunnit

IRAQ

Turkey denied reports that it carried out attacks against civilians in Iraq’s northern Duhok province, where a strike killed eight people, including two children, and wounded 23 others at a tourist resort, Al Jazeera reported Thursday.

On Wednesday, at least four missiles struck an area in the Zakho district of the semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region of northern Iraq. Iraqi officials and state media blamed Turkey for the attack, which prompted protests in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi also declared Thursday a national day of mourning and ordered an investigation into the incident.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu countered that Ankara was not responsible for the attack and blamed “terrorists.” He offered to cooperate with Iraq in investigating the matter.

The attack comes amid ongoing Turkish military operations in northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which Turkey labels a terrorist organization.

Cavusoglu said rumors accusing Turkey of the incident were an effort by the PKK to stymie Ankara’s counterterrorism activities.

In 1984, the PKK took up arms against the Turkish state. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which had mainly taken place in southeastern Turkey, where the PKK aimed to establish a homeland.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • The Kremlin reiterated that Russian President Vladimir Putin is in good health, denying rumors that the leader was unwell after an overseas trip was canceled, Al Jazeera reported. Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, Putin’s health has been in the limelight, with some Western media sites speculating that he has cancer or Parkinson’s disease. However, CIA Director William Burns said that there was no evidence to back up these claims.
  • The chief of Britain’s foreign intelligence service suggested that Russia has lost its ability to spy in Europe “by half,” following the expulsion of more than 400 Russian intelligence officers from cities across the continent and the arrest of a number of deep-cover spies posing as civilians, CNN wrote.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy criticized the new EU penalties targeting Russian gold, a large bank, a nationalist motorcycle organization known as the Nightwolves, and performers who support Vladimir Putin as inadequate, according to the Guardian. Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised the EU’s seventh wave of economic penalties on Thursday as a “powerful signal.”

DISCOVERIES

Home Alone

Social isolation doesn’t only affect a person’s emotional state but also their brain’s structure and cognition, according to a new study.

A research team recently analyzed how loneliness and social isolation affect the gray matter, the regions in the outer layer of the brain that consists of neurons.

Researchers wrote in the Conversation that previous studies have shown that brain areas associated with social interactions are strongly linked to networks that support cognition. These include networks that help us to focus and memorize and those regulating emotions.

For their paper, the team investigated data from almost 500,000 people with a mean age of 57 from the United Kingdom’s Biobank. They categorized socially isolated people as individuals who lived alone and had social contact less than once a month.

The study also analyzed neuroimaging scans from nearly 32,000 people, which showed that isolated individuals had a lower volume of gray matter and poorer cognition, including in memory and reaction time.

Researchers spotted a connection between reduced gray matter volumes and particular genetic pathways associated with Alzheimer’s disease. When they contacted participants 12 years later for follow-up, scientists found that those who were socially isolated but not feeling lonely had a 26 percent higher risk of dementia.

While they acknowledged that further research is needed on social isolation, the authors cautioned that if people don’t engage in social interactions to shore up their cognitive skills, these might diminish over time.

They suggest that individuals should take up activities that keep the brain active, such as learning a language or a musical instrument. But they also emphasized that health officials could help in tackling social isolation by determining who is isolated and arranging social activities to help these individuals.

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